Liberals look at buying distressed buildings to save stock of affordable housing

Pandemic could also mean an opportunity for governments to pick up rental units cheaply

OTTAWA — A new analysis of the country’s stock of affordable housing suggests the Liberals’ decade-long strategy to provide more of it is starting in a deeper hole than previously thought, and may be further behind once the COVID-19 pandemic passes.

But the pandemic could also mean an opportunity for governments to pick up rental units cheaply.

Carleton University researcher Steve Pomeroy, whom housing groups and governments both rely on for advice, found a decline of 322,600 affordable rental units in the private market between 2011 and 2016.

Over the same period, federal and provincial investments in affordable housing created about 20,000 affordable units, meaning that for every new unit governments created, 15 were lost.

What that means is the Liberals’ national housing strategy and its plans to create 150,000 affordable units over a 10-year stretch would only be replacing about half of what had just been lost.

The new concern is that the situation will repeat following the current economic crisis brought on by the pandemic, as tenants’ problems paying rents put a squeeze on small landlords and their assets are scooped up by larger real-estate funds with little interest in keeping them affordable.

It’s why the federal government is now considering purchasing those assets as part of the next phase of the government’s response to the pandemic.

“My position on this has been, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em,” said Pomeroy, a senior research fellow at Carleton’s Centre for Urban Research and Education.

“If the (real-estate investment trusts) are coming along and buying up these properties, why don’t we let non-profits do the same thing, or enable non-profits to do the same thing?”

In recent days, Social Development Minister Ahmed Hussen has suggested in meetings with housing advocates that he’s open to putting federal dollars behind the idea.

“If this is an opportunity to really put a serious dent in homelessness, then that’s an opportunity we should be taking,” said Jeff Morrison, executive director of the Canadian Housing and Renewal Association.

There is no specific program under the national housing strategy to enable acquisitions, said Pomeroy, who also works as a consultant. Public support like that would be needed to help smaller, non-profit housing providers gain the necessary capital to purchase properties.

So far, few affordable housing renters are behind on payments. Morrison said that about 10 per cent of units are in arrears or non-payment.

Tim Richter, president of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness, told MPs on a Commons committee this week that there’s very real worry that the economic crisis created by COVID-19 could accelerate the losses in affordable units Pomeroy noted, “making Canada’s housing crisis even worse.”

“If we’re in a hole, we have to stop digging,” Richter said.

Pomeroy estimated a realistic target for a federal program would be to buy about 7,500 units annually, which would cost over $1 billion in a mix of equity, loans and grants to purchase and refurbish units.

Those units could be a mix of apartments that could quickly be available as affordable or social housing units, plus other assets like strip malls or commercial office space that could be repurposed into housing, said Leilani Farha, global director of The Shift, a housing-rights group.

“If it’s the case that all of these different possible property types become distressed, it’s then an amazing opportunity for governments at all — local, provincial, and national — levels to consider moving in and buying those assets to increase public access.”

Additionally, there are concerns that motels and hotels will shut down, pushing out homeless people housed in them to avoid overcrowding in shelters and slow the spread of COVID-19.

Coronavirus

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

robbery
UPDATE: Suspect identified in early morning shooting

Rimbey RCMP had responded to a complaint of an armed robbery at the Bluffton City General Store

Health Minister Tyler Shandro and Dr. Deena Hinshaw, the chief medical officer of health, receive flu shot. Photo via Government of Alberta
COVID-19: One more death in central zone

Ponoka County on province’s watchlist

Many rural municipalities were concerned about a proposed reduction to their industrial revenues, but Alberta’s Municipal Affairs minister has come up with an alternative solution. (Photo contributed)
Province and rural municipalities agree on a plan to support Alberta’s energy industry

Creating new wells or pipelines would result in a three year ‘tax holiday’

The influenza vaccine will be available at no cost starting Monday in Alberta. “The more that we can avoid influenza-related tests, emergency visits and hospitalizations, the stronger our system will be to support those with COVID-19 and all other health needs," says Dr. Deena Hinshaw, the province's chief medical officer of health. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Hinshaw urges Albertans to get flu shot as COVID cases jump by 332

Alberta’s central zone now has 132 active COVID-19 cases

The Bellows family on vacation last year in Mexico. L-R: Angel, Ryan, Darrel, Grace and Michael. (Photo submitted)
Rimbey community rallying behind family after cancer diagnosis

Michael Bellows, 12, a ‘strong, resilient kid’ says father

In this photo provided by Shannon Kiss, smoke from the CalWood Fire billows, Sunday, Oct. 18, 2020, as seen from Gunbarrel, Colo. (Shannon Kiss via AP)
‘First guys out:’ Western Canadian air tanker fleet busy despite drop in wildfires

CEO believes wildfires have become more dangerous in recent years as people live closer to where they start

A passer-by walks past a COVID-19 testing clinic in Montreal, Friday, Oct. 16, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz
Canada ‘yet to see’ deaths due to recent COVID surge as cases hit 200,000

Much of the increase in case numbers can be attributed to Ontario and Quebec

Executive Director of Agape Kate Halas (left) receives $1000 from Sgt. Eric Christensen (right) on behalf of Agape. Photo/ Shaela Dansereau.
Former Wetaskiwin Peace Officer wins provincial award; gives back to Wetaskiwin community

Eric Christensen has won the Alberta Association of Community Peace Officers Award of Excellence.

Agriculture Minister Devin Dreeshen (Alberta government photo)
Big boost for Alberta college agriculture research

The $2-million agreement to benefit Lethbridge College’s applied research team

Grant and Barbara Howse, in quarantine in Invermere. Mike Turner photo
Denied entry into U.S., Canadian couple still forced to quarantine for 2 weeks

The rules around crossing the U.S. border led to a bizarre situation for an Invermere couple

Employee Sophia Lovink shows off a bag of merchandise in Toronto on Thursday, June 11, 2020. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette)
Canada gets C-average grade on 2nd year of cannabis legalization

Cannabis Council of Canada releases report card on federal government and legalization

Canadian and American flags fly near the Ambassador Bridge at the Canada-USA border crossing in Windsor, Ont. on Saturday, March 21, 2020. Restrictions on non-essential travel between Canada and the United States are being extended until at least Nov. 21. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Rob Gurdebeke
Non-essential travel restrictions at Canada-U.S. border extended to at least Nov. 21

The restrictions do not apply to those providing essential services in either country

(The Canadian Perss)
Banff wolves have lower survival rate due to hunting, trapping outside park boundary

Researchers looked at 72 radio-collared wolves in the national park from 1987 to August 2019

Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden speaks at Miramar Regional Park in Miramar, Fla., Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2020. Alberta Premier Jason Kenney is still hopeful about the Keystone pipeline if there’s a change in government in the U.S. next month, saying Alberta has been engaging with American officials from both sides of the aisle. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Carolyn Kaster
Alberta premier says he’s still hopeful about Keystone, even if Biden elected

The Alberta government has agreed to invest about US$1.1 billion as equity in the project

Most Read